Thursday, 24 May 2018

Estonia May 2018 Part 2 No food at the inn!

Arriving in Tallin which is two hours ahead of the UK, it was now past 18.00pm by the time we set foot outside the terminal. Our tour company rep was there to meet us as promised and he took us across the road to meet our car hire rep and fill in the necessary forms. A brief instruction on how to use the provided electronic tablet and we were good to go. Escaping Tallin was easy and we were soon on a decent standard of road heading east towards our hotel for the first night. What struck us en route were the huge numbers of geese both flying and in the surrounding fields. There were literally thousands and it really heightened our sense of expectation for the next 10 days. 
Around 90 minutes later we arrived at the unexpectedly grand Sagadi hotel which is part of what appears to be a summer place or stately home. We were soon down to earth though. I asked what time dinner was served until and was told 19.30. It was 19.35. We wouldn't be able to get anything now the rather unconcerned receptionist told us. The bar however was open until 20.00! Asking where we might get something to eat we were told 15 kms away. We decided we couldn't be bothered as the effort of looking for somewhere was beyond us so instead decided to take a short drive around the locality to get some early birding in.
Inevitably we found some geese!
Bean Goose   Anser fabalis
Bean goose no less, a first for me! 
There were also Great White-fronted Geese, one I'd only ever seen once before too.
Greater White-fronted Goose   Anser albifrons
Add to that a Yellowhammer feeding in a ploughed field and I was quite happy, they are something of a rarity in the UK nowadays.
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The other species that struck me by their numbers were Fieldfare. They were everywhere, that was one species I'd assumed would be further north but there again we were quite far north. About as far north as the very top of the British Isles in Shetland.
We returned to the hotel for an early bedtime, knackered by our early start and journey. Forward thinking Mike had purchased a bottle of beer each so it was nightcap and bed at 2100 even though it was still light!
TBC.

Estonia May 2018 Part 1 Introduction.

Why Estonia? Several people asked me the same question and the answer was Why not!
My birding/photography pal Mike and I have been taking an annual trip for the past few years and we have travelled to Hungary,Bulgaria twice,Iceland, Spain and Scotland so we were looking for somewhere different again this year. Leaving our wives at home (as they have no wish to subject themselves to the sometimes punishing schedules we set ourselves) we also try to avoid places that they might regret not travelling to, in other words a spring tour that isn't going to suit their needs of a sunbed and a swimming pool.We can't have them being envious of our trip after all!
After some consideration we thought we'd give Estonia a try as we'd thoroughly enjoyed Iceland and thought Estonia might surpass there , certainly in terms of numbers of species and also the added bonus of mammal opportunities.
We found a company offering self guided trips and decided it was perfect for our needs. We wanted a mix of hide opportunities and self found birds and we don't want to be part of a big group.
This is what they came up with.
Day 1 (6/05/18) Meet at the airport to pick up the hire car and an electronic tablet plus maps from company rep. Travel to our hotel in NE Estonia for an overnight stay.
Day 2 Free to explore..overnight in bear hide
Day 3 Free to explore.. overnight in bear hide
Day 4 Free but drive to West Coast overnight in Kosmonautica ( one time R&R centre for Soviet space crews)
Day 5 Black Grouse hide early am then travel to Pikla for overnight
Day 6 Ruff lek hide early am, overnight in Pikla
Day 7 Ruff lek hide early am, back to Kosmonautika.
Day 8 free to explore overnight Kosmonautika
Day 9 free to explore, drive to Tuulinga for overnight.
Day 10 Floating hide early am, Beever boat trip evening. Overnight Tuulinga
Day 11 Floating hide early am, drive to airport and fly home.

The package was a reasonable 1380 euros per person and included car hire of a VW Touran, overnight accommodation with breakfast for 8 nights plus 7 hide hires and a boat trip.
It was all sounding very exciting particularly as we hoped to see several new and desirable bird species like Cappercaillie, Ural Owl,Hazel Grouse as well as witness the Ruff lek, a personal target for my list, and then of course there were the mammals, particularly Brown Bear. That would be a bit special.
As always from booking (June 2017) to departure in May 2018 seems to take forever but at the crack of dawn we set off from home at 4.45am to fly from Manchester airport to Tallin via Frankfurt.
We'd spent ages deciding what clothing we needed... we were heading to the Baltic region after all and were scheduled for some early starts which might be cold... and then there was the photo equipment too. Normally one big lens will cover all your birding needs but here we had mammals too, and big ones at that. There might be low light so an f2.8 lens might be advantageous. Problem was we only had 8 kilos of hand luggage so it would take some tough decisions on what we could or couldn't take.
As it happens Mike and I both have similar equipment and we both decided to take:-
Canon 1DX2
500mm f4
100-400 f4.5-5.6
70-200 f2.8
1.4 TC
2.0TC
Binoculars
Tripod
Wimberley head
Batteries, cards,chargers
My new Canon 5D4, Mike has a 5DSR
I also took a laptop, external hard drive, charger and my 24-105mm zoom ...oh and an Olympus Tough pocket camera. I even took my most recent acquisition, a Rode microphone. 
Now there is no way all that can go in your hand luggage so for once we took the radical decision to put our zoom lenses in hold baggage, along with chargers, tripods etc. Some might think it a bit rash risking lenses but they were transported from their place of sale to our homes by courier so they have to be built to travel after all. Anyway we took a chance.
There were sacrifices too of course but they were in the form of clothing. We didn't intend getting dressed up for dinner which is just as well as it turned out but more of that later.
Lets get on with the report!
T.B.C.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Goa March 2018 Part 5.

I wasn't sure what to expect before we went on holiday to Goa but what we found was certainly pleasurable. Will we return? I think it's pretty much certain we will mainly because it's such good value still. Speaking to someone on the coach back to our car park from Manchester airport I was able to to discover the north is quite a bit more expensive it seems. A large Kingfisher was 190 rupees in the hotel we first stayed in in 2006. The north is much more commercialised and to many more attractive in terms of restaurants, shopping  and other  activities like night markets etc. It has it's downsides though!
For us this was a fill in holiday at a budget we can afford. I deliberately cut back on things like guided birding...I have other opportunities for that in the coming year...so it was just a winter escape really.
I had hoped to maybe photograph 50-60 species of birds and in fact I think I managed 73 so that to me was a great result.There was only one I hadn't seen before, a distant Lesser Adjutant.
Lesser Adjutant   Leptoptilos javanicus
but there was enough to make it very worthwhile.I definitely got my best ever views of several species too.
Small Minivet  Pericrocotus cinnamomeus
Little Minivets to large Asian Openbills!
Asian Openbill.  Anastomus oscitans
Applying for an e-Visa is so much simpler than it used to be too even if the queue at immigration can be a bit tedious after a long ( and in this instance delayed) flight.
Was it worth it? You bet it was.
Next time I'll venture further afield, maybe hire a guide and transport to widen my scope too.
I'll let you know if we do.
cheers
Dave 

Goa March 2018 Part 4.

One of the things that surprised me about our return visit to Goa was how inexpensive everything was compared to virtually everywhere else I have visited in recent years with the exception of Siem Reap in Cambodia.
In North Goa prices had risen steadily in the few years we visited between 2006 and 2010. A large 660ml Kingfisher beer for example had shot up from 55 rupees to 120 on average by the time of our last visit so I was amazed to find it was still that price in our hotel this time and in fact our favourite restaurant down the road was only charging 100 rupees!
There are currently about 90 rupees to a British pound.
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The local restaurant doesn't look that attractive, particularly in daylight but the food was amazing!
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Cooked traditionally in a tandoor oven or otherwise both local and foreign dishes from China and Mongolia as well as typical plain UK fare was available.
We ate like kings and the bill including drinks was never more than 1600 rupees and usually a lot less.
To give an example of what good value there is to be had, we took a boat trip that lasted from 10.00am to 2.30pm, first we went out to sea looking for Dolphins  which sadly were missing on that day, then we headed up the river to look for bird life,the best of which was a White-bellied Sea-eagle perched in a tree
White-bellied Sea Eagle   Haliaeetus leucogaster
For the price of 2200 rupees for two people it included a fresh seafood lunch .

Delicious garlic prawns and garlic bread to start.
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followed by a grilled fish steak to follow 
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The drinks were free flowing and I never once had to ask for one once the choice was made. They simply got replaced when the glasses were empty. I had 4 small bottles of beer and lost count but had at least 4 G&T's too.
We enjoyed it so much we repeated the exercise only this time taking the evening sunset cruise instead. I had the good sense not to take the camera on that one!
It's a long time since Claire got me up dancing but I was up for it that night!
£11 would buy you very little in the UK , three big beers if you were lucky.
T.B.C.

Goa March 2018 Part 3

From our hotel the beach was a 15-20 minute walk along a tar road which is currently being widened.
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I do hope they are not planning too much development because right now it's wonderful. Three or four beach shacks then nothing for at least a 30 minute walk until you get to the crowded Cavelossim beach
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That is not my scene one little bit but the walk there is!
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Even at it's busiest at the weekend it's still quiet.At other times it's deserted for the most part.

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Well, except for birds that is!
Sadly for me both times I went without a big lens I found Terns and Gulls.
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus
but not when I took my 500mm! Still I managed some half decent cropped shots so you can identify the species, like these Gull-billed Terns for instance.
Gull-billed Tern  Gelochelidon nilotica
However what were ever present were the small waders like Sanderling
Sanderling. Calidris alba
Lesser Sand Plovers
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus
and Kentish Plovers
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
The beach was one place you could get some really good views
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and fair play to the local authority they are doing their best to make the beaches a desirable feature too.
When we first arrived there had been some pretty rough seas and the litter washed up on the beach was awful.
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It covered mile after mile too but there was a couple of teams working hard to clear it all up.
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It was most heartening to see the same stretch of beach a few days later.
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For those who haven't travelled in India it's quite usual to see the litter everywhere and unfortunately away from the beach it's still a problem.
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I find it really upsetting to see such beautiful countryside used in such a fashion.
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But it's not just India, we have the same problem at home from fly tipping but not to this extent.
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That said, in India there isn't the same waste disposal service we have in the UK so perhaps a little more of an excuse whereas here there is none.
Let's hope the world wakes up sooner than later to the damage we are causing.
T.B.C.

Goa March 2018 Part 2

I suppose that if there was one disappointment about the location of our hotel it was the fact that most of the area between the road to Cavelossim and the beach was actually a military firing range and it was a prohibited area. We only heard firing on one day although on another airforce jets were screaming past very close by and they were extremely low, extremely loud!
South Goa, Cavelossim
For the most part I didn't wander too far, a kilometre or so at most but I found plenty to keep me occupied, photography was always a challenge for a variety of reasons. The heat which became too uncomfortable to take after mid morning. The insects biting when you went anywhere in the shade and sometimes when you were out of it too! The hardest part was getting a decent view!
I'd wander across the road from the hotel
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and find my way through the undergrowth and trees bordering a high wall that surrounded the firing range.
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The sound of bird song was surrounding you but often you couldn't pin point where it was coming from
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Add to that the camouflage some birds have and it was a nightmare.
Spot the bird in this shot!
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Fortunately not everywhere was quite as bad and on occasions I got some really decent views. Although a bit distant I was absolutely delighted to find this Black-winged Kite hunting from some electricity wires on my very first outing.
Black-winged Kite  Elanus caeruleus
For the most part it hovered some distance away
Black-winged Kite  Elanus caeruleus
but nevertheless I was delighted to get these views.
Black-winged Kite  Elanus caeruleus
Anyone who read my Spanish blog might remember that earlier last year I spent 16 long hours locked in a tiny hide that wasn't big enough to stand up in waiting, without success to see this bird ( or any other for that matter) so this was very, very special to me. It was a free spectacle too, I'd paid 120 euros for the previous attempt!
Someone must have been smiling on me though because that was the only time I saw one.
There were other sights and captures I was pleased with though. Beneath the wires the local farmer had set fire to the field to burn off the stubble from the rice crop and I got some shots of the Cattle Egrets that were waiting to pounce on the fleeing insects.
Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis
a bit different form anything I have photographed before too.
Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis
It wasn't just the Egrets either, Myna Birds, Drongos and Swallows were all taking advantage of the opportunities too.
Streak-throated Swallow   Petrochelidon fluvicola
Black Drongo  Dicrurus macrocercus
The latter two a damn site more difficult subjects too.
I had done some research before leaving home and found a trip report by someone who had stayed in Cavelossim so that had given me some idea of what I might see but he had visited in November time when there was much more water around. By March it was virtually dried up everywhere although I did find one muddy pond that proved to be popular with an amazing number of birds, albeit not too approachable ones either.
White-breasted Waterhen   Amaurornis phoenicurus
The White-breasted Waterhen would dash for cover whilst the Wooly-necked Storks would wander out in to the open area ready to fly if deemed necessary.
Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus
They usually did!
Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus
Having been to The Gambia just a few weeks previously it was noticeable how less confiding the majority of species seemed to be. Why I don't know. Perhaps they are more threatened by humans either here or wherever they come from.
I guess some could be treated as a food source perhaps?
Indian Peafowl  Pavo cristatus
Certainly they used to feature on prestigeous  menus in the distant past both here in the UK and abroad.
I did find one other source of water though, well two actually.
The first was a large man made lake which had a small amount of "beach" which attracted one or two waders like this Pacific Golden Plover
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
The surrounding area was a building zone so I'm not sure what is happening there but in the meantime it is an attractive place for other Lapwings too.
Yellow-wattled Lapwing  Vanellus malabaricus
Both Yellow-Fronted and Red-Wattled
Red-wattled Lapwing   Vanellus indicus
The other source of water was the the nearby beach, and what a beach it is too!
T.B.C.

Goa March 2018 Part 1.

We hadn't visited Goa for 8 years and to be honest didn't have much intention of doing so either, our impressions from our last visit was that the north was getting too busy and over commercialised, the south too expensive. I can't comment on the north but the our concept of the south couldn't have been further from the truth.
So why did we return?
Two fold really. We were already due to have a five night visit to the north of India when I booked and I expected that my VISA could be put to a more cost effective use. A bit of warped logic really especially as I ended up applying for the online VISA but as the first had a limited time use I had to re-apply for the second visit anyway!
The second reason for going was quite simply the price! A bargain 2 weeks package deal for under £1200 with guaranteed winter sun and some birding for me. Perfect.
As the departure day approached it became apparent we were escaping some really wintery weather in just the nick of time. The day we left , a rather unsociable 3.30am, we narrowly missed getting caught in a snow storm over the hills of North Wales . The roads were starting to get a decent covering as we left but fortunately eased as we headed through to Manchester airport.
Phew! Made it!
Well, there was a 3 hour delay after we had boarded the plane as we had to wait for our turn to be defrosted.
De-icing the planes Manchester
It's pretty slow process and I presume there are not enough de-icers available for the number of planes needing them.
De-icing the planes Manchester
Still we made an hour back during the flight but it was still an ungodly hour by the time we reached our hotel in Goa, somewhere in the region of 2.30 am.We had been travelling for 18 hours.
If you haven't been to India before it's not an unusual sight to see hotel and restaurant staff asleep on floors, tables and any other place they can find. Our hotel was no different, it was after all only a 3 star which basically is a a 2 star in most other places.
I had read Trip Advisor reports so I was prepared for what we found but it was still with a little trepidation we headed up the narrow staircase as we were then led down the narrow corridor to what was our allocated room.
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The rooms are basic,
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but spotlessly clean. Storage space is minimal
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The bed pretty hard but do you know what. When you wake up to the sun streaming through the window any concerns seem to melt away with it!
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You wander down to the breakfast area and are met by the very friendly staff
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and yes, the hotel is a bit tired, the mattresses on the sun loungers might be a bit damaged here and there
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But who cares!
Micky Mouse place you might think and you\'d be right, we went up to our room one day to see they had replaced the bed cover.
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but I have nothing bad to say about the place. The staff were lovely, so too our fellow guests.
You can stay in a 5 star hotel and no one speaks to each other, here everyone was very friendly.
No, for us the important thing is stretching our holiday funds to maximise the amount of time we go away and as long as everything is clean, the weather is an improvement on home and there is the availability of good food and drink, we are happy.
This place certainly ticked all the necessary boxes.
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I don't spend much time in a hotel room anyway and most of that is asleep. I have seen incredibly expensive safari camping trips were the accommodation is more basic than this place was.
Oh, then of course you have to consider location and I had chosen this one for the reason it was out of town, semi rural and most likely very quiet.
That it proved to be. Claire could relax by the pool as she like to do and I could go wandering with my camera.
That's what our holidays are often about but some of my birding happens to be slightly more enjoyable than the rest.
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